Like any river city, one of the best parts of Asuncion is its location on the waterfront – in this case, the mighty Río Paraguay. Sadly, the riverfront has been neglected in most parts and has been populated with ramshackle settlements of the poor. Nonetheless, the area around the port and the government palace is quite beautiful and well worth a visit, and a boat ride on the Paraguay is a must for any visitor to Asuncion.
I took the morning on Wednesday for just such an outing with my Brazilian friends, Lourenco and Marilete, on the last day of their visit, and it was a delightful and restorative excursion. At the dock we met Gustavo, the charming captain of the bright-red skiff named Brillante, and for 3,000 guaranís (about 60 cents) we were treated to a refreshing ride up the river and a tour of his tiny riverfront village, Chacoí, just 20 minutes upriver.
Marilete had once visited the river at its headwaters, far to the north in the Brazilian state of Matto Grosso. From there it flows southward for some 1,600 miles, through Brazil and along the border of Bolivia before cutting right through the middle of Paraguay, separating the arid, largely uninhabited Gran Chaco on the west from the forested and hilly eastern half, where most of the people live, and eventually forming the border with Argentina and joining with the Paraná.
The Paraguay is important for many reasons, and not surprisingly, I learned, is increasingly threatened by the transnational agroindustry that has made Paraguay the world’s fourth largest producer of soy, most of it transgenic and most of it exported to support the vast international cattle industry. The river is the main source of water for the vast Pantanal Wetlands, the largest tropical wetlands in the world. But the governments of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay had big plans to restructure it as an industrial waterway, largely to facilitate the export of soy, and planned to create a series of hydroelectric dams along the way.
Several environmental groups including one called Rios Vivos, conducted awareness-raising campaigns and eventually the governments stepped away from the plan, but it’s unclear how it all will end.
Meanwhile, the air is fresh and clear on the Río Paraguay and Gustavo, like the other riverboat captains who make their living ferrying people up and down its banks, he starts up his boat with a hand-cranked engine, takes the small tiller at the helm and heads upriver.
Gustavo delighted in showing us around his beloved Chacoí, which takes its name from the diminutive form of the word Chaco, from the great expanse of wilderness that stretches through half of Paraguay and much of northern Argentina. He pulled up next to his father’s equally brilliant Brillante II, painted in orange and purple. His father constructs these boats, he explained, and repairs boats as well as giving history and nature tours up and down the river.
He led us up the dusty street, past the sole restaurant bar and a horse-drawn cart to his home. There his wife has a small tienda with everything from eggs to mate for sale, and we bought chunks of fresh Paraguayan cheese, homemade dulce de leche and cups of coffee and sat at a table in a sunny window to savor them.
Later Gustavo took us down to the other end of the tiny town, where we met an Italian sailor who has taken up residence in Chacoí between jaunts around the world – next stop, Polynesia – and we visited with him before making our way down to the river.
Asuncion lines the horizon across the river like a picture postcard, framed by the leafy foreground of the forest. A path led through the forest, under pendulous hanging nests and over huge snail shells embedded in the dirt, past charming quintas with red tile roofs and whitewashed walls and a tiny abandoned colonial-style church. We wandered slowly, breathing in the clean air, the birdsong, the silence, a lovely respite from the chaos of the city, and arrived at the dock just as a barefoot pilot was preparing to head back to Asuncion.
Back in the city, we headed back up past the spectacular white Palacio de Lopez, the governmental palace styled proudly, I am told, in the tradition of the Venetian renaissance, and past the Plaza de los Desaparecidos, dedicated to the thousands of dissidents and so-called subversives who were “disappeared” during the military dictatorship. Standing out against the peaceful landscape of river and garden is a sculpture, shattered bronze pieces of a human figure, seemingly trapped between two enormous blocks of cement. Partially buried hands reach for the sky; the eyes and the lips of partially buried faces continue to haunt me as we continue, past the clutter of colonial-era buildings, street vendors and traffic to the Plaza de los Heroes.
We decided to brave the lunchtime crowd at the Lido Bar, a classic 50’s style diner where patrons sit shoulder-to-shoulder on high stools around a giant U-shaped bar and order Paraguayan classics like caldo de pescado (a delicious creamy fish soup) and tarta de palmito (soufflé with cubes of palm heart).
A few scenes from our excursion:
Created with Admarket’s flickrSLiDR.
Asuncion Chaco Chacoi Pantanales Wetlands Paraguay River Rio Paraguay Rios Vivos